Whatchu talking 'bout, Willis?

A twisted TV dream starring Todd Bridges, Brutal Juice, and Corn Mo

Only in a strange world would this happen: You settle down for a nice little afternoon nap and wake to the sound of the phone ringing. You answer, and an unfamiliar voice says, "Yo, this is Todd." Dazed, you think to yourself, "Todd who?" But before you can ask, he answers the question for you--"Todd Bridges."

Todd Bridges...Damn! It's Willis on the phone, man!
Yes, it is a strange world. A diff'rent world, you might even say, one that don't move to the beat of just one drum.

And nobody knows that better than Todd Bridges--except perhaps for Jake Szufnarowski and Scott Pollack, the two young masterminds behind Which? Records and its flagship freakshow album, Show & Tell.

Containing 35 tracks' worth of TV theme songs, many performed by vintage-era punk bands, Show & Tell features such oddities as Agent Orange doing "Get Smart," The Meatmen covering "Mission: Impossible," The Dickies doing "Secret Agent Man" and, of course, "Diff'rent Strokes" performed by Todd Bridges and the Whatchu Talking 'Bout Willis Experience.

It also features three Texas acts--Austin's Jesus Christ Superfly doing "Hee Haw," the posthumous Brutal Juice's Denton space-rock interpretation of the "I'd Like to Buy the World a Coke" song (titled "Paid Programming"on the album), and the ever-enigmatic Corn Mo's deeply ethereal version of "Charles in Charge."

Which?'s cramped office headquarters in Greenwich Village seem to share more in common with a clandestine meth lab than the usual record-label digs. On the far wall is a Xeroxed copy of a check for $15,000, and on the opposite wall, a picture of Salvador Dali. It's a perfect combination, especially given the very real-looking sign on the door that reads "Acme Detective Services."

Most days, Pollack and Szufnarowski sit around making promotion calls to magazines and record stores. The conversations usually go something like this: "It's a compilation CD of TV theme songs, featuring Todd Bridges singing a punk version of 'Diff'rent Strokes'...What? No, this isn't a prank call."

As a matter of fact, the CD is very real and has sold quite well, entering its second pressing at the moment--assisted, no doubt, by MTV's Week in Rock story that aired just before the April release, reporting that Bridges--seemingly reformed after a number of earlier scrapes with the law--had once again gotten in trouble for smashing his car into another vehicle after a fistfight in a video arcade.

"It was perfect timing," says Szufnarowski. "I mean, you couldn't plan better marketing than that."

Of course, it's one thing to sit around doing bong-hits, watching TV, and thinking "Man, wouldn't it be cool to do a punk compilation of TV songs?" and quite another to actually go through with it. The strange tale behind how two guys who look like extras for the movie Clerks--operating on a budget that was "not even shoestring, but more like dental floss"--managed to get this project off the ground is a monument to the power of DIY capitalism and the fanatical love of television.

"We were sitting around listening to a Horace Pinker seven-inch version of the Laverne and Shirley theme, and we just said, 'I think there's a possibility here for a whole album to be produced,'" Pollack recalls. Their dreams were very nearly crushed by the School House Rock and Saturday morning cartoon compilations that soon followed, so the pair decided to take the hook a step further by getting an actual star to sing a track.

Originally they wanted Ron Pollilo (Horshack of Welcome Back Kotter) to sing John Sebastian's "Welcome Back," but the deal fell through because his agent demanded too much money.

"This project was never about money," Pollack insists. "It was about the spirit of TV and punk from the very start." So their attentions turned elsewhere.

"Diff'rent Strokes was the natural choice," says Szufnarowski, "given our love for the show and just the weirdness of what happened with the people involved in it."

Todd Bridges, you might recall, was busted for cocaine in 1990. Dana Plato, who played Kimberly Drummond, did time for robbing a video store, then posed nude for Playboy. And Gary Coleman...well, what can you say about Gary, other than that he's now guest homunculus on the Psychic Friends Network?

After unsuccessfully trying to get Coleman, Pollack finally reached Bridges' mother, Betty, who works as an actress and Todd's agent in L.A. Pollack says that she spoke to Todd and that the two decided it would be a good thing for his career. Within days, Bridges was in the studio.

The Which? guys hooked up with most of the bands on the CD (about 10 of whom are from the New York area) in much the same way--just by picking up the phone. Then they got major distribution through Caroline Records.

Pollack offers to call Mrs. Bridges on the phone. When she answers, a very sweet and caring woman is on the other end of the line.

Asked what she thinks of Diff'rent Strokes and what has become of its fallen stars, she says, "I think it was a very good show. It had a lot of morals, and hopefully you learned from it. But you have to realize that people's lives on TV aren't the same as in real life."

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